Rethinking democracy in a digital age

Cecilia Galván and Gaston Wright

The election of Javier Milei in Argentina suggests the need for philanthropy to shed its traditional political reticence

In the shadow of Argentina’s 2023 elections, a fascinating narrative unfolded, not of political victories or defeats but of the power of digital landscapes in shaping democratic outcomes. As philanthropy eyes the globally dubbed ‘Year of Elections’ in 2024, the Argentine case serves as a compelling dossier urging a change of attitude towards the digital challenges besetting electoral processes worldwide.

Argentina’s political arena, much like its football, is fiercely passionate. Spending on digital advertising in the 2023 elections vividly depicted democracy’s new battleground. Analysis of over 70,000 ads carried out at Civic Compass and others in partnership with a group of researchers from Universidad Torcuato Di Tella revealed a staggering spend of more than 1.1 billion Argentine pesos ($3.27 million) on Google and Meta. It also revealed a lack of capacity by the electoral authorities to effectively monitor political parties and candidates’ spending on digital platforms amid an unparalleled economic crisis. The research found an average of 200 per cent difference between what candidates declared to the electoral authorities and online political advertising spending on Meta and Google’s political ads libraries. Beyond the figures lies a stark revelation: the urgent need for philanthropic intervention in digital democracy.

Research has revealed a paradox of our social network era: the more citizens engage on digital platforms, the more their trust in political figures dwindles.

Traditionally, philanthropy skirts the fringes of electioneering due to legal and ethical considerations. That needs to change. The Argentine elections demonstrated the importance of the civic digital space, yet as these digital arenas flourish, they present various challenges – misinformation, data privacy concerns, and the worsening of digital polarisation, underscoring the imperative for philanthropy to recalibrate its focus on fortifying digital democracy. Why support the old-school concept of the rule of law and traditional political accountability mechanisms when the democratic battleground is the digital arena?

Spending on digital advertising in the Argentine elections was not just a monetary transaction but reflected the potent influence of digital platforms in shaping public opinion and electoral outcomes. Candidates like Sergio Massa and Javier Milei (the new president) navigated these waters with varying degrees of success, highlighting a fundamental shift in campaign strategies towards digital engagement. This shift isn’t merely a tactical adjustment but a call for philanthropic organisations to prioritise integrity in digital campaigning and the accessibility of digital platforms as cornerstones of a healthy democracy.

A transparent digital ecosystem

Philanthropy’s role in this digital democracy saga isn’t about funding traditional political participation with an online twist but ensuring the robust, equitable, transparent digital ecosystem that underpins modern elections and supports an agenda to modernise electoral laws. It’s about championing the cause of digital literacy so voters can discern truth from misinformation, advocating for regulations that ensure fairness in digital campaigning and supporting technologies that safeguard election integrity.

Research has revealed a paradox of our social network era: the more citizens engage on digital platforms, the more their trust in political figures dwindles. Furthermore, the advent of generative AI prompts a pressing question: does such technology exacerbate the spread of disinformation?

Millions of political ads and electoral content will not be scrutinised if philanthropy does not encourage and support their grantees to use the ‘gold’ behind platforms’ ad libraries.

A collaborative effort among stakeholders

Addressing these modern dilemmas requires institutional actors to act in accordance with human rights principles. Regulations that safeguard freedom of expression and ensure citizens’ access to information rather than impede it are essential. Achieving this goal requires a nuanced and collaborative effort among stakeholders. It is not only the responsibility of elected officials but also grantmakers. For example, funding electoral watchdog organisations to have access and be trained to take advantage of Meta and Google political and social ads libraries. As elections unfold in 2024, millions of political ads and electoral content will not be scrutinised if philanthropy does not encourage and support their grantees to use the ‘gold’ behind platforms’ ad libraries. However, understanding the libraries requires help from experts. Access to the libraries is available, but NGOs compete for data scientists and number crunchers with the private sector. Grantmaking organisations could provide specific lines of funding to staff NGOs with experts able to turn complex ads spending data into readable reports for regulators This approach not only aims to protect democratic values but also to strengthen fragile electoral institutions in the context of a digital society.

The Argentine election and the 64 countries with elections in 2024 are case studies of the challenges and opportunities at the intersection of technology and democracy. This narrative

beckons philanthropic organisations to look beyond the conventional approach, engage in digital dialogue, and invest in the infrastructure of democracy in the digital age.

As we approach the second semester of 2024, a year teeming with electoral milestones globally, the lessons from Argentina must not be viewed in isolation. They are part of a larger global story of democracy’s digital transformation. Philanthropy has a role in this story as an active protagonist advocating for a democratic process that is accessible, transparent, and equitable in the digital age.

The call to action is clear: philanthropy must venture into the digital fray, armed with a commitment to uphold the pillars of democracy in the digital epoch. The time is ripe for philanthropic organisations to recalibrate their focus, to champion the cause of digital democracy, and to ensure that as the world moves online, democracy does not get left offline.

In 2024, let philanthropy be remembered not for the elections it swayed but for the digital democratic foundations it helped solidify. Let it be a testament to its role in ensuring that every click, every swipe, and every digital ad strengthens the democratic fabric of our societies.

Cecilia Galván is director of Research and Policy at Civic House.
X: @soycecigalvan

Gaston Wright is director of Civic Compass at Civic House.
X: @wrightgas

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